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Understanding systems


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User research, analytics, hypotheses and experiments: we are focused on gaining understanding through data, validating that our interventions bring about the (user) behaviour we desire. We design systems, the systems we design interact with other systems, and it’s all getting awfully complex. Can we truly understand what’s going on?

In this talk, Johanna will introduce you to core principles of systems thinking, and discuss how they relate to our work as designers of products, services, companies. What methods and tools can we employ to make sense of systems? How do we enable users to form a mental model of a system - and what role are we designing for our users?

Expect to walk away with some systems theory, some practical take-aways, and the insight that the system is always one step ahead of you.

Published in: Technology

Understanding systems

  1. 1. Understanding systems Johanna Kollmann | @johannakoll | the lean event, Brighton
  2. 2. “A system is a set of elements or parts often classified as its function or purpose.” that is coherently organized and inter-connected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviors, Donella Meadows
  3. 3. “Systems-based thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another.  ! Then drawing on that knowledge to create efficiencies of process, infrastructure and communication.” Abby Covert
  4. 4. Hard systems Soft systems ! You can’t “fix”problems with systems thinking, instead there are “situations you could improve”. Peter Checkland
  5. 5. Systems exhibit purposeful behaviour over time. Systems get ‘soft’, unpredictable once humans are involved.
  7. 7. TOOLS
  8. 8. Tools for MODELING systems Tools for MEASURING systems
  9. 9. Models are the starting point to look at the situation, and see what change should be introduced, and how.
  10. 10. Categorisation model: precedes the data. Sense-making model: created from data; the data precedes the framework. Dave Snowden Source:
  11. 11. Business Model Canvas
  12. 12. Journey maps
  13. 13. Checkland’s ‘Rich Picture’ 1. Construction of the Humber Bridge (adapted from Stewart and Fortune, 1994)© The Open University 2. Distance Learning Situation © Wood-Harper et al, Information Systems Definition: The Multiview Approach, Blackwell Scientific Publications 1985
  14. 14. Checkland’s ‘Rich Picture’ Stakeholders Worldview Connections Conflicts
  15. 15. Eric Ries ! “Only by building a model of customer behaviour and then showing our ability to use our product or service to change it over time can we establish real facts about the validity of our vision.”
  16. 16. Measuring tools Custom analysis based on raw data Logging tools Dashboard Content marketing tools (combined with qualitative research!)
  17. 17. 3 things to pay attention to in a system: 1) Stocks & Flows 2) Feedback loops 3) Delays
  18. 18. 1)Stocks & Flows inflow outflow information feedback, control stock
  19. 19. 2)Feedback loops A feedback loop occurs when a change in something ultimately comes back to cause a further change in the same thing. Reinforcing Loop (positive loop) births/year population Population Growth Balancing Loop (negative or goal-seeking loop) heat Thermostat temperature target temperature temperature gap
  20. 20. 3)Delays inventory days
  21. 21. 3)Delays inventory days Reacting faster
  22. 22. 3)Delays inventory days Reacting slower
  23. 23. Look at systems behaviour over time, rather than focusing on single events. ! Spot trends, and ask: ‣What came before? ‣What might happen next?
  24. 24. By the time you see what is going on in a system, it has already happened - and you are already a step behind.
  25. 25. USERS
  26. 26. Mental Model System Model Conceptual Model
  27. 27. We are not only explaining a system and making it easy to use: we are also shaping the role of the human actors in the system.
  28. 28. For reference: Donella Meadows, Structure of information flows ‣How does information flow through the system? ‣What information is shown, how, and to whom? ‣Who can manipulate and control information?
  29. 29. For reference: Donella Meadows, Rules of the system ‣Constraints, social rules, rules about roles of actors in the system ‣Who can take which actions? ‣How can actors in the system engage?
  30. 30. For reference: Donella Meadows, Conceptual model Information flows Rules How users understand the system, and how they can engage with it
  31. 31. “When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.” ! “For users, this is what it means to be at the center: to be unaware of anything outside it.” Kevin Slavin Photo by Peter Tannenbaum
  32. 32. SKILLS
  33. 33. Russell L. Ackoff The ‘Systems Age’ is about expansionism - all objects, events and experiences are part of larger wholes. ! Rather than focusing on ultimate events, it’s about interrelated parts, about systems. ! Instead of an analytic mode of thought, we need a synthetic mode of thought.
  34. 34. Skills for the systems age: 1) The ability to think abductively. 2) The ability to synthesise information. 3) The ability to choose the right level of abstraction.
  35. 35. Abductive reasoning Abductive logic allows for the creation of new knowledge and insight. The conclusions from an abductive argument might turn out to be false, even if the premises are true. You make inferences (or educated guesses)based on an incomplete set of information in order to come up with the most likely solution. Sources: Jon Kolko,; Andy Budd,
  36. 36. Ability to synthesise information The process of drawing together concepts, ideas, objects and other qualitative data in new configurations, or to create something entirely new. ! Synthesis ‣typically deals with non-numeric data. ‣often undertaken towards the end of an analytic process as the reverse of deconstruction. ‣can also form part of an exploration Source: Steve Baty,
  37. 37. Ability to choose the right level of abstraction Models make complexity visible, tell a story, and allow us to create shared understanding. Successful modeling requires abstraction. ! ‣define the boundaries ‣abstract with a purpose in mind ‣it’s about the process - not about deliverables ‣steward the process of abstraction
  38. 38. Skills for the systems age: 1) The ability to think abductively. 2) The ability to synthesise information. 3) The ability to choose the right level of abstraction.
  39. 39. Matthew Milan “The fundamental shift design will need to navigate over the next decade: Going from designing for people to designing with people at scale.”
  41. 41. Use this tool to help you think more systemically! THE ICEBERG MODEL EVENTS What is happening? PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOR What trends are there over time? SYSTEMS STRUCTURE How are the parts related? What influences the patterns? MENTAL MODELS What values, assumptions, + beliefs shape the system? IncreasingLeverage Download at:
  42. 42. Design as Participation |Kevin Slavin Cynefin Framework|Dave Snowden Jon Kolko ! Andy Budd ! Steve Baty Special thanks to Livia Labate, Erica Heinz, Jonathan Flintham and Adrian Howard <3